Public spaces are the only slice of paradise many Kenyans know

Friday August 12 2016

By MUTHONI THANG'WA
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Public spaces are owned by the public. They are not owned by politicians or even the city fathers.

Neither are they owned by a specific group of the public. They are, rather, held in trust by the public that lives in a city or neighbourhood for the duration of their stay and then left intact or made better for future generations.

Kenya's public spaces have always been in danger from land grabbers or so-called private developers. Now they are attracting the attention of politicians in change-of-user schemes that are misguided at best.

Public spaces are a question of public policy – the principles on which laws are based, and therein lies the problem.

These social laws can be written in Acts of Parliament, but we all know that the process is slow, expensive and sometimes controlled by corruption – a public policy injustice itself.

City planning, first and foremost, is a professional activity that cannot be left to politicians whose interests are votes, come rain or sunshine.

That aside, the value of public spaces to the public good outweighs the many individual interests and so they should be protected at all costs.

Public spaces are an international phenomenon that hold prestige in all major cities worldwide. Kenya, therefore, can only hope to increase her public spaces, not decrease them.

Practical utility facilities such as bus parks are the responsibility of city fathers and planners and cannot be used as an excuse to take away public spaces.

Public spaces serve as paradise for newcomers, job seekers and retirees. They sit at public parks in the city, either reading newspapers or discussing the politics of the day.

The entrance to the Jeevanjee Gardens in

The entrance to the Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi on December 29, 2015. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION

It is the only place in any city that does not have an entrance or exit requirement. A user can sit all day, every day, and even “claim” a particularly favoured corner.

Parks are utility places for mothers and young families visiting the city. There, they sit freely on the ground and eat takeaway food bought from hawkers or fast food restaurants. The freedom of the park is conducive for children to eat and play.

In some developed countries, they are also a rest and recuperation space for the elderly, who may be confined to city apartments all day. They are also popular with commercial sex workers who find them ‘free’ areas for conducting their business.

City parks are the only spots for conservation of biodiversity and nature in urban areas. The importance of nature for the well-being and relaxation of an urban population cannot be understated.

Research has shown that investors are also drawn to cities with public spaces, and real estate around a park tends to fetch higher prices than elsewhere.

Monuments and art pieces are the only logical addition to public spaces, to enhance their beauty and the open space's overall effect on the well-being of users.

Uhuru Gardens is a park built around the politics of Kenya and monuments associated with political life. That does not in any way play down on the value of such a park.

Family members enjoy a day out at Uhuru Park on

Family members enjoy a day out at Uhuru Park on November 10, 2013. Many people visit the park for recreation and relaxation. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION

Many cities in the world have public parks that enjoy a prestigious place in the commerce, touristic and social life of those cities.

London has Hyde Park and Regent Park, New York City has the iconic Central Park, Paris has the Jardin du Luxembourg and Parc de Bagatelle while Rome has Villa Doria Pamphili and Villa Borghese gardens, to name just a few.

Kenya's major towns like Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu do not have high streets, where the fashion of the world can be displayed and traded. Nor do we organise street markets for their commercial and social value.

Playgrounds in urban neighbourhoods are practically non-existent, thanks to land grabbers and poor urban planning. We do not have any public squares where the social interaction of the city can be conducted at no cost.

Nairobi's only real advantage in terms of public spaces is its parks. City Park has been encroached on by an estate, a market, and a recreation facility, leaving it forever in danger of destruction.

Then there are Uhuru Park and Central Park in the city centre. Uhuru Park still exists due to the vigilance of brave Kenyans like the late Nobel Laureate, Prof Wangari Maathai.

Jeevanjee Gardens is well, due to the determination of the Jeevanjee family and other supporters. The only relatively safe Park seems to be Uhuru Gardens. Surely, current and future generations deserve to enjoy these spaces.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa